Monday, August 27, 2018
We really are going back to the moon and then on to Mars
Pence’s purpose in speaking before the assembled at NASA's Johnson Space Center was to demonstrate that the Trump administration, perhaps unlike some of its predecessors, really means it. As NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said more than once, this is not Lucy and the football again. We really are going back to the moon and then on to Mars.
Pence’s speech lacked much of the soaring rhetoric of, say, the famous Rice University address made by President John F. Kennedy. The fact is not a slight on the vice president. Few people could deliver words like JFK and fewer still write them like Ted Sorenson.
Pence did end his speech with a great deal of religious imagery, invoking the famous TV broadcast from the Book of Genesis made by the Apollo 8 astronauts 50 years ago this December. (The Atlantic has a fascinating piece about the vice president’s use of religion when he speaks about space exploration.) Many evangelicals such as Pence believe that exploring space and moving out into the universe is a way to honor God. Indeed, space travel has caused spiritual awakenings in some astronauts, Apollo moon walker Jim Irwin being a prime example.
The vice president was not above handing out a little bit of political red meat. Without mentioning President Barack Obama, Pence decried his cancellation of the Constellation space exploration program. Pence claimed that America would be back to the moon by 2020. Many experts dispute this, noting the Bush-era program’s technical and financial problems.
On the other hand, Obama might have followed the recommendations of the second Augustine Commission and mended rather than ended Constellation. He certainly would have been following the examples of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Democrats who rescued the space shuttle and space station programs respectively at crucial moments.
Instead, Obama ended Constellation out of caprice and, when a political firestorm erupted, offered the bright, shiny object of the "Journey to Mars" that meant nothing. If Obama had taken the path of his Democratic predecessors, we might well have been looking forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 with people back on the moon.
Pence offered a little bit of chest thumping on behalf of the administration he serves. Americans will be riding American rockets from American soil as soon as 2019, ending the embarrassment of having to rely on the Russians for access to space. Americans will be orbiting the moon by 2024 on the Lunar Orbiting Platform Gateway.
As Eric Berger of Ars Technica notes, getting people into lunar orbit by the end of President Trump’s presumed second term would be quite an accomplishment. It would also be very challenging as it would require the 1B version of the Space Launch System.
A coalition of NASA and commercial and international partners is being forged to conduct the expansion beyond low Earth orbit. The Trump administration means the thing to be done, and Congress is supporting the effort on a bipartisan basis. The only thing that the vice president left out was the approximant year astronaut boots will tread the lunar surface once again.
Pence, even though he was speaking at a NASA civilian facility, did not fail to mention the Space Force, the sixth branch of the military designed to mount guard on American space assets. For space to remain a venue of peaceful exploration and commercial development, it will need a Space Force to make sure that war in the heavens never breaks out.
The fact that the president mentions the space exploration initiative and the Space Force in every campaign speech and that the vice president has made a full-throated defense of the same demonstrates the seriousness with which the administration regards the efforts. The White House is also giving fair warning to anyone who wants to close down space exploration for a third time. Potential opponents of Americans exploring and settling space will make such an attempt at their peril.